The Flagler County school district announced on Nov. 25 that Belle Terre Elementary Principal Terence Culver would retire in early January. Culver’s retirement takes place as he is under internal investigation over numerous issues cited in a complaint and by whistleblowers. On Tuesday, a complaint was also filed with the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office alleging theft of PTO funds. Stephen Furnari, an attorney in Flagler Beach and the author of the complaint against Culver, decided today to come forward publicly.
By Stephen Furnari
On September 24, I submitted a “citizen complaint” pursuant to Flagler Schools’ School Board Policy Section 650. In this complaint, I requested that the District investigate violations of the law, school board policy and professional standards of conduct allegedly committed by Terrence Culver, the Principal of Belle Terre Elementary School.
The Complaint contained an aggregation of allegations made to me by several district employees and volunteers through the course of my investigation of the work culture at BTES following a highly publicized incident involving the alleged abuse of a student with autism.
The allegations in the Complaint included:
● Misappropriation of Funds
● Sexual Harassment and Hostile Workplace
● Discrimination and Nepotism
● Retaliatory Practices and Violation of Whistleblower Policy and Laws
● Defamation and Libel
● Gross Mismanagement
● Violation of ESE Laws and Regulations
District employees and volunteers who made these allegations were unwilling to come forward on their own because they feared retaliation by Culver or his colleagues. I reported to the District that, despite state whistleblower laws and district policy prohibiting retaliatory practices, these persons have witnessed their peers get berated, receive demotions and transfers, be terminated and more for reporting problems about BTES or Culver.
In the complaint, I also requested that appropriate measures be made to ensure that employees who come forward were protected under the district’s own Whistleblower Protection policy found in Section 674 of Flagler School’s School Board Policy Manual and The Florida Whistleblower Act for public employees (Section 112.3197, Florida Statutes). Following the submission of the complaint, I assisted three whistleblowers perfect their rights under school board policy and state law with respect to statements made by them to district administration related to the allegations outlined in the complaint, and I aided one of the whistleblowers with respect to their reporting of allegations of financial misappropriation to the Flagler County Sheriff’s office. The allegations made in the complaint were corroborated by the whistleblowers, both through their in-person interviews and in affidavits submitted by them to the district.
District administration confirmed with me that it would investigate the allegations made in the complaint and those made by the whistleblowers; however, at this time, neither the whistleblowers nor I have been formally advised as to the outcome of these investigations or any resolution reached with Culver.
My impression was that district administration took these allegations seriously and, as of this date, they have ensured that the whistleblowers were not subject to retaliation for coming forward with their complaints.
Based on recent statements made by district administration to the press, it is my understanding that Culver recently announced his retirement. I have received no formal explanation from the District as to whether Culver’s decision was, in any way, related to its investigation. The public can draw their own conclusions as to the timing of Culver’s announcement.
The staff of Belle Terre Elementary School has endured a toxic workplace for years, and they owe a debt of gratitude to the brave whistleblowers who came forward to share their stories. We hope that by showing how these whistleblowers were protected from retaliation, other Belle Terre staff members will continue to come forward and share their experiences.
In the long run, it will only benefit our community’s school system and Flagler County’s students. I look forward to the possibilities that new leadership will bring, including healing Belle Terre’s workplace culture and improving outcomes for all students, including those with disabilities.
Stephen Furnari, an attorney and exceptional student education advocate, is the co-founder of Flagler ESE Advocates (FEA), which serves as a voice for parents of students with disabilities receiving exceptional student education in Flagler County.